Everymatter is for the gods—Often when men are lying
prostrate on the black earth they raise them upright from their
misery, and often they overturn on their backs even those
whose stance was very firm. Then much misery is theirs and
a man wanders about in need of life and distraught in mind.
I once knew of a man who suffered from the strangest affliction. It appears that he fell in love with his handwriting, much to his misfortune. Should you want to scoff at the veracity of this story, then I would ask you to imagine for a moment what this man himself might have felt was the truth of his situation. No doubt he would have liked to deny it, to swear to its impossibility. But the customs of fate belong to those higher wills to which we have no access. In any case, though you may not care to ponder the metaphysical cruelty thrust upon this man, his story is most interesting for it is a story of the mind against itself.
The man’s affliction first made itself known to him at his workplace. He would be writing some simple note—too brief to need an email or letter—to his secretary or a senior partner, sometimes just to someone talking on the phone. As soon as he began to write, however, something took place in which he seemed to lose himself in the act. He could not understand it. There was something mesmerizing about the way the ink laid itself onto the paper. He would write continuously—it was the ink that flowed forth without interruption, not the words whose shapes were only a pretext for the rhythm of the pen’s movement. He could scarcely pay attention to the content of his message without falling behind the steady march of black onto white, like a river bank trying to form itself in the wake of the water’s flow.
The first time this happened, he was startled out of the trance only after having written for a considerable amount of time, finding that his out-to-lunch note was nearing seven pages in length. Such a moment understandably frightened him though he could hardly grasp what had even happened. But over the comings days and weeks he quickly realized that something was not right. It was not just the inexplicable trances of writing that unnerved him. He was developing a deep fascination with composition in long hand and it fueled bewildering desires in him whose scope was not like anything he had known or believed possible. But it was an aching nonetheless. He constantly caught himself longing to press pen against paper. And though there could be no rational motivation for such work, he began to spot the trappings of this peculiar obsession everywhere, whether it was the stacks of blank white paper that accumulated mysteriously at the edges of his desk or the pen he constantly found himself fingering with one hand, along with others gradually lining his pockets and drawers. Sometimes he would slip out in the middle of a meeting under the pretense of needing to use the restroom, but actually he would steal away to his office to grab a slip of paper and fill it with frantic writing before coming back, even though he usually really did need to go to the restroom, and so suffered doubly from the ordeal.
The man was becoming increasingly disturbed by these conditions apparently thrust on him from nowhere, but you can hopefully appreciate the absolute lack of ideas of how to respond to the situation that occurred in his mind. For he was a normal person like you or me. He had a job, he had a wife and a daughter whom he loved more than his life itself, and there was nothing all that unique about him. At least this what he told himself in the onset of his condition. Like a mantra, he repeatedly told himself he was not unique, not different, for that was the only way to comprehend such fears as he had. But whenever he tried to ignore the desire to write or actively prevent it—even going so far as to throw away all the pens from his office and put all blank paper in the copy machine down the hall—his guts ground together even more painfully, and his self-avowed normalness rang hollow. At such times his apparent need to write would ruin any chance of being able to focus on work, and he could barely even hold a conversation without his gaze drifting to some blank wall or to his secretary’s immaculate white blouse which he imagined covering in black scribbles and shapes. When his desire was at its worst, he feared that there would be no white space left on Earth unadorned with his black figures if it were up to him.
So when the man finally decided to partially indulge this perverse affliction lest it consume him, he did so very nervously and cautiously, in the manner most appropriate for someone suddenly willing to barter with rationality for a chance at sanity. In doing so, he decided that it might be better to give his new-found proclivity for the written word a carefully specified domain in his life, without either ignoring it or giving it any undue attention. But, alas, he could not deny the rapturous indulgence he felt every time he gave his writing-desire its allotted share of attention, and this undeniable enjoyment soured much of what had previously seemed an appealing sense of objectivity and clear-headedness. In other words, he could never shake the feeling of having given into something, though he remained committed to the idea that he was the authority in the situation.
Nonetheless the poor man managed to stymie the growth of his obsession, and he kept it from interfering with his life on the whole, save his mind’s inner life, where it occupied an increasing portion. Suffice it to say that he tried to regard the whole issue as a secret hobby that, dormant until now, had awoken in him with vigorous demands for the attention it had previously missed and which, once provided, would allow it to resume its proper and innocuous place. He thus remained determined to treat it this way. But for how long can the mind tell itself to itself? So he started buying high quality paper from a stationery store, both plain white and an assortment of monogrammed pads and letterheads. He stopped using his computer calendar and instead carried an appointment book in which he found he could practice containing his writing.
The man’s most profoundly important purchase in this period, however, was his pen. Few can say they belong to the elite community for whom finely crafted writing instruments mean something. But the man, whether his membership owed to conditions of madness, experienced the deep delight of possessing a pen of such a high quality along with the critical capacities to know it. At a well-known store selling hand crafted Swiss pens, he had scarcely looked over two of them before he saw the one he knew was to be his. A beautiful black fountain pen with a rhodium-plated 14K gold nib, highly polished platinum clip and fittings, and an elegant pattern of four laser-engraved tannish lines running down its black lacquer barrel. In no time he purchased it, registered it, and took it home, where he immediately seized the nearest piece of fine blank paper and, inspecting his new mistress once more in the light, wrote:
Here writes the first words of my pen, Hypatia.
And just below this he signed his full name so exquisitely and fittingly that he fleetingly regretted not having been given a longer name. He sat back, admiring the inscription next to which he laid the pen down, though he didn’t have the faintest idea where the words or the pen’s name came from in his mind.
For the next few months, with Hypatia constantly at his side, the man enjoyed a period of happiness. His desire to write and the passion it sometimes involved had not lessened any but he felt he could now contain it, or at least channel it. At the office he began to do some of his work in long hand which at first his secretary and some of the senior partners discouraged though they soon found that his work was more meticulous and comprehensive this way. They made no fuss. At home the man also spent increasingly more time writing. He told his wife that he had decided to finally tinker with a novel he wanted to write in his spare time, an idea he had had since law school and which his wife admired and had always hoped he would carry out. In truth, he had no idea what to write about, and even less idea about the origins of what he really did write in all those hours he spent with Hypatia in his study at night. But nonetheless, for the time being the man felt happy and increasingly confident that things were as he had imagined them to be.
Sadly, this was not the case for the poor man, for the darker side of his affliction had yet to fully emerge, though he had begun to miss signs that it was already loosening itself from his control. When he did notice, it was at his firm, where his colleagues expressed some concern about some of the work he had submitted in longhand. Though the complaints were not specific, he feared that they were not about the quality of his work but something more fundamental and ominous. It seemed to him that either his discipline had gone lax or his illness had progressed. In either case, the scent of something uncontrollable in his writing again sent frightening signals his way. On looking at some of the documents he had done he quickly realized that his basic coherence often disintegrated over the course of the page and its meaning tended uneasily towards dilapidation. His fear pointed to something he had tried so hard to disprove. Still, he acted quickly to rectify the threat to his work and switched all of his writing over to the computer again, even relegating his personal planner practice to his free time and only copying its content from his laptop. But he also knew this meant that he would have to increase his already large share of at-home writing. Though he reasoned that if that was what he had to do to keep the frontlines of his inner crisis from extending outward, then that was what he would do. He just hoped he could keep it from affecting his family life, whose integrity he placed above his own happiness.
The man was confounded by woes beyond remedy. He would look in the mirror and see age around his eyes and in the lines across his face, age in his soul. Even if others could not see what he saw, he knew it was there. And he knew that you can count the wrinkles on a face the same way it is said that you can measure a tree’s age by the number of rings in its trunk. But trees are without either worry or wisdom, which both advance secret years upon a person.
The man’s young daughter, however, had noticed her dad’s new-found affinity for pens and, having mistaken it for something like the innocuous hobbies and preoccupations that gradually adorn adult life but which are, however, controllable and voluntary—decided to give her dad a pen she decorated at school as an anniversary present. For the first time, the man realized that his formerly private crisis and confounding affliction had become visible to others. This aroused in him a distinct degree of uneasiness and led him to further consider the possibility of needing to reach out for help, though he was worried that such an act would irreparably damage the claim to sanity that the gesture itself would be intended to rescue.
Nonetheless, the man was of course very touched by his daughter’s gift even as it sent ripples of fear through his limbs. That night he even proceeded to use the gifted pen to try to articulate, on paper, his problem for the first time. And in the act he felt a touch of warmth for having made even a slight step toward asking for help. This letter, however, and the many others it led to, were themselves afflicted by the curse they tried to name, getting lost in their own writing and failing to communicate anything. In short, the attempt was disastrous. The letters were riddled with misspelled words, incoherence, and a worrying lack of grammatical recognizability. The writing itself began to veer wildly around the page, and the mass of sheets before him, littered with pretty scribbles and the hieroglyphs of madness, represented an undeniable milestone in the degradation of his written capacity for communication. Despair and anguish descended on him. The pen given by his daughter, a standard red ballpoint with glitter sparkles and colored pipe cleaners glued to its cap, began to taunt him. Nor could its tyrannical inadequacies escape his now highly developed critical understanding of the merits of various writing instruments. In his pocket he could feel Hypatia seethe with indignity in her soft cloth travel case. He threw the wicked gift aside angrily and, turning to a new stack of blank paper, unscrewed Hypatia’s cap and proceeded to write a new letter, this time addressed to his daughter. For two hours he struggled to articulate a lesson on the importance of gift-giving within the framework of familial relations. He tried to contain it in some larger life lesson so that he would not merely be playing to his frustration. But every letter’s message gradually withered away, leaving his true anger over the wretched pen lying naked on the page, all while Hypatia’s movements orchestrated the rhythm of his frustration. It was only after some twenty drafts had been rejected and after three calls for dinner had gone distinctly unanswered that he suddenly recoiled from the whole sinister operation and veritably broke down into fear and shame and helpless remorse. The last sentence of a particular page before him, itself roughly parabola-shaped, glared at him like a wicked and toothless jack-o-lantern’s smile: It is hard to understand the wiles of this cold world, my dear daughter Julia, but you cannot pretend that it will be any easier on you in life if you continually refuse to seek help from those institutionally most well-disposed to provide it: your family.
Had such a moment, for some unimaginable reason, not been enough for the man to seek help—which it certainly was—then what followed would in any case have guaranteed it. For not long after the man’s breakdown in front of all those awful letters, his wife came into the study carrying a box of his last month’s writings, and she looked deeply worried.
We need to talk, she told him. I’m worried about you. The man said nothing and just lowered his head down onto his hands on the desk in front of him.
Honey, I just want to know if you’re alright. I looked at your novel. Is this a joke? You have probably a thousand pages here, but it’s… frightening.
What do they say? the man said, looking up now. He was genuinely curious, you see, because he actually had no idea what he had been writing all these past months.
So his wife read some of it to him from the first few pages of the box. It was crazed and incomprehensible but also somehow severely eerie in its tone. She read several lines in particular to him:
The white bones that won’t bite but chomp and grind each other will not stop the bleaching souring, do not trust the white chomp, grind for it will not cure the bruxism in your soul, save only the night’s dark day when will white it cover out.
The man sat frozen. He had no idea that he could have produced such words, and something sinister in them deeply frightened him. She read another line:
As it is written, so shall it be done. For if you would not write it, then you would just as well try speaking with your ass for all the justice it will bring you in this world.
And another line, a few pages down:
Only in time will all the blank spaces in the world, so offensive in their lack of determination, be judged and sentenced to meaning. But until that time you must learn to conquer them still—circumscribe such spaces with characters and words. Let no space be uncontained by the figures that subjugate their meaning, just as each letter contains spaces though these spaces belong to the letter.
She stopped reading as her eyes began to water, though she remained silent. She put the box on the desk so that he could see the pages himself. At this point, I scarcely need to repeat what the general character of these writings was. On one page, titled “Transcendental Dietetics,” he had drawn a series of pill-shaped objects—it was a catalogue of vitamins—and next to each one he gave a name, a description of its properties, and an explanation of its importance for his well being. And not many pages below this, there was a binder-clipped mass of several hundred pages that described in relentless detail various biological processes occurring in the human body. These descriptions were complete with editorial comments on how to finish this project—the complete transcription of the body’s functioning into words—which alone would guarantee his physiological continuity, the notes suggested.
The man moved the box of papers away and closed his eyes. He was at last broken by his condition.
Honey, I need help, he said.
Now, I’m no philosopher. But I should say that although it is difficult to imagine this man’s hardships, I believe it is important to realize something deep beneath his story whose roots extend all the way down to the most fundamental questions that plague the universe. For the world is full of dire questions. There are more questions about what is than what actually is. And so most of us, especially after the last vestiges of childhood have gradually abandoned us, do not care to answer all these questions or even a great many of them. Nor do many find it worthwhile to search out such questions. But make no mistake—some questions find you. And when one does, as happened to this poor man, it will claim you entire, so that no aspect of your life will remain untouched by what it asks of you.
But, many months later the man was again living a relatively normal, happy life. He had gone through some counseling and had been able to give up writing by hand altogether. Nor did he suffer any longer from those ravenous episodes when the need to write would consume him. As for Hypatia, he knew she was a jealous mistress, and wary of destroying her, mailed the pen as a gift to his cousin in El Paso where it was sure to be lost to the world forever among the junk he hoarded. He even secretly blamed Hypatia for his condition, thinking she had orchestrated the whole thing even before he ever entered the pen store. And at work he was able to function just as he had before. He even found dictating his work to his secretary comforting in a way totally opposite to the rapturous frenzy inspired by long hand. Everything at last appeared settled, and was so for the next few years.
But one day, sometime later, when the man was at home alone he received an urgent phone call. It was the hospital. His daughter had been in a car wreck. His heart went numb, and he frantically began asking if she was alright. He was in the middle of saying that he was leaving right away to get there when the woman on the other end cut him off:
Sir, she is going to be alright, but she needs a blood transfusion, and I need you to contact your insurance company right now and have them send over some specific information from her medical records right away so that we can make sure she gets the best treatment as fast as possible.
Of course, I—
Sir, this has to be done right now, so please listen carefully and I’m going to give you something to write down. The man’s heart sank and fears flushed inside him.
Alright, are you ready to write this down? the nurse said. He was silent, and his lips fumbled wordlessly.
Sir, are you there? This is very serious, she said.
Yes, just let me grab a—, the man began though he choked before he could say pen. He looked around the room in panic. His laptop was in his car, and he knew it was out of battery anyway. He hadn’t touched a pen in so long, nor would he even let his wife keep blank white paper out in the open around the house anymore. Instead she used bright neon-colored paper pads which, even in the worst phase of his affliction he regarded a repulsive receptacle for the written word—but even these he could not find anywhere in sight. Worse, his wife was on a plane that moment, entirely unreachable.
It’s alright, I can remember it, just tell me, the man said, though he could barely force these words out of his mouth which, along with his thoughts, felt like they were sinking down into his quivering and uneasy stomach.
No, sir, that will not work. This is very serious, and I have to give you a hospital ID number and directory information. You cannot get it wrong. You must write this down, the nurse said sternly.
The man looked out the window in the hope that there might be some passerby whom he could enlist to help. He would do anything for his daughter, he would jump off a bridge to prevent the least bit of harm from being done to her, but he could not stop the emotional terror inspired by the memories of his illness—all those terrible white sheets—and this made him feel indescribably horrible and ashamed. He couldn’t begin to tell the nurse about his problem—the idea of trying to describe it to her sincerely was almost as sickening as the nature of his malady itself. Then the man spotted his wife’s canvas tote bag on the kitchen counter. He knew she always kept a pad or two of his fine monogrammed stationery which he had ordered in considerable bulk and so had needed to be used somehow.
Okay, one second, I’m sorry, let me grab a piece of paper right here, the man said with choked terror. He pulled the bag over to him and dug inside it to grab the pad and the only pen he could find in it—a black ballpoint. He almost vomited at the click of the cap coming off.
Alright, I’m ready, the man said, almost whispering. He was so dizzy and terrified he thought he might faint, but he took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he began to write down what she said on the phone. When he opened his eyes again, he saw that he had written what she had said and nothing more. Nothing. A huge, cavernous feeling of nothingness came over him. He did not know whether it was a symptom of his madness or simply that his terrified expectations had not come true. But in any case, for the first time he felt he was free at last.
Later that week, when his daughter had already recovered almost completely and would suffer no permanent injury, the man received an unexpected letter in the mail from El Paso. Curious, the man opened it and immediately recognized that it was a thank you letter written on nice letterhead with his cousin’s monogram atop it, in long hand which was unusual for his cousin. But what he found even more unusual about the letter was that it was exactly eighteen pages long.